Solving the involuntary displacement of East Austin’s long-term residents requires a new shared prosperity approach. Modernizing Austin’s housing development policies and increasing local affordable housing subsidies will ensure Central and West Austin do their fair share to meet regional housing demand.
East Austin is changing.
Census data reveals that “near” East Austin became less Latino between 2000 and 2010 even as the city’s Latino population grew.
In addition to demographic change, recent home assessment data highlights a surge in assessment values in the 78702 zip code.
Regional job growth and exclusionary zoning in Central and West Austin are creating demand for East Austin land.
Austin has a long history of both explicitly and institutionally racist policy-making. The 1928 “City Plan” prepared for Austin’s City Plan Commission is the most cited official document advancing racist planning, but a variety of other policies (e.g. race-based housing covenants, highway construction, public sector hiring practices, and at-large Council districts) subtly and not-so-subtly aided in creating a segregated City.
In present-day Austin, demand for property near central Austin is the result of the core’s job density. Simply put, folks prefer to live near their job and are willing to pay a premium to avoid traffic congestion.
The Central Texas region has a solid track-record of continuous job creation even as it absorbs additional population – mostly from Texas (so, visualize folks from the Dallas suburbs or the Rio Grande Valley, not Californians). This job engine feeds the population engine.
As Austin proper has grown from approximately 450,000 people in 1990 to almost 900,000 today, the number of “top 5%” households has also doubled. Many of those households will want to live close to their job. And they have the cash to bid up existing property if new units are not created in the places they want to live in.
Combine this demand for housing near jobs in the core with the historic financial under-valuation of East Austin property as a result of racist policy-making and one gets the recent surge in home prices and new retail perceived as culturally insensitive (or even hostile) by some long-term residents. As many residents have put it, demand for East Austin is “catching-up” to that for places like West Austin and Hyde Park that were previously privileged by zoning rules, park investment priorities, road designs, etc., that supported exclusion.
The NIMBY’s tools will never dismantle the NIMBY’s house
Resistance to the financial stress and cultural alienation caused by regional housing demand’s effects on many long-term East Austin residents follows a popular Austin template: community mobilization to deny “upzoning” requests, criticizing property refurbishments or re-development, and seeking historic designations.
Personally, I sympathize with the frustrations of long-term East Side residents. Undoubtedly, some spent much of their adult lives constrained either by explicitly racist policy or fuzzier identity- and class-based social and professional networks. And now they are told to suck it up, bare the market, and cheerfully accept the change brought by New Austin as it (theoretically?) moves into a color-blind era. “Cash out and move somewhere else” is sound financial advice, but obviously won’t feel very good to a lot of East Side residents.
However, the conventional Austin anti-development template some of the long-term residents have adopted to fight changing property designs and uses will actually worsen many of the problems they seek to solve.
Denying local development and pushing through historic designations will “work” if a high-demand neighborhood is trying to erect a fortress of price to deepen exclusion. Development-destroying victories don’t dampen regional housing demand for East Austin at all; quite the opposite. Maintaining a historic, suburban-style neighborhood with unique retail and restaurants, that’s also near the job density of the core, will guarantee East Austin continues to fetch a market premium.
Instead of the NIMBY template, solving East Austin’s demand-created issues requires a new “shared prosperity” approach.
First, the rules that presently govern where housing can go, how easily it can be built, the parking spaces required, and how it coordinates with public transit, all need to change. Until it’s easier for profit-driven developers (that’s how almost all housing is built in the U.S.) to focus on creating affordably-priced “missing middle”-style housing near transit services in other core-adjacent neighborhoods such as West Austin, developers will continue to work within our current policy and focus on supplying highest-priced units in lower-cost land plots such as East Austin or sprawl-inducing greenfields. They will continue to demolish older single-family houses and build newer designs that add a bigger premium, instead of building duplexes with garage apartments and granny flats.
Image courtesy of Opticos Design
As part of this effort, we need to modernize the land development code, re-design neighborhood “Contact Team” elections for inclusion, re-prioritize park investments based on equity, vet historic designations after considering their citywide impact, shift transit appointments towards actual transit riders, and push the new Express Lane revenue to fund transit. These reforms of the housing-transit nexus will ensure that all parts of the Austin core are doing their fair share in meeting regional housing demand while also promoting household affordability.
Second, we need an increase in local (City and County) dollars invested into affordable housing subsidies. A shared prosperity approach would ditch the current inconsistent mix of referendum-approved bonds, project-by-project negotiations, hard-to-administer fee-in-lieu programs, and narrowly-targeted Historic Preservation Districts for a fixed percentage of City and County general fund budgets being dedicated to subsidized housing. This means that all new units perpetually fund housing subsidies through the taxes they pay into the general fund. And this approach also helps local policymakers manage price/rent reductions through subsidized “oversupply” which is a more versatile and clearly legal tool than, say, rent control.